It was once understood that a gentleman never holds up a woman’s looks for ridicule. Even now, when the idea of a gentleman has itself become an anachronism, the #MeToo moment might have been thought to re-enforce the old prohibition.
Turns out there’s an exception for nuns.
Last Tuesday, the host of ABC’s “
Live!” took advantage of this exception during a segment poking fun at the A-listers showing up for this year’s Met Gala in everything from mock papal headgear to cross-bedazzled evening gowns. The gala’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Mr. Kimmel said his boyhood had given him a much different impression of the Catholic sense of fashion. For the laugh line, up popped a photo of a middle-aged nun—he called her “
Sister Mary Frances O’Brien
”—“wearing the latest from JCPenney.”
In reality, Sister Mary Frances O’Brien doesn’t exist. The nun in the photo is Sr. Patricia Pompa. I know because Sr. Pat is principal of Villa Walsh Academy, the Morristown, N.J., high school my daughters attended.
At a time when Christians elsewhere are being beheaded or having their churches torn down, a nun joke doesn’t register high on the outrage meter. But for those who know the real-life woman behind the joke, it stinks of injustice.
It’s true, as Mr. Kimmel’s reference to JCPenney was meant to convey, Sr. Pat’s habit would win no awards for fashion. Then again, it is precisely in this sense she wears it. In its way it is a declaration of higher loyalties and imperatives.
Sr. Pat’s entire life has been about self-sacrifice on behalf of one of these imperatives: the education of girls, which she oversees in a school located a few feet from the convent where she and the sisters live. So when they admit a girl to their school, they see themselves as welcoming her into their home. The Lord says, “I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” At
Villa Walsh, Sr.
Pat knows every one of her 250 lambs by name.
The Religious Teachers Filippini were founded to educate the daughters of the poor, but the school’s location means a fair number of Villa students come from families of means (“I see the cars you drive,” Sr. Pat sometimes reminds parents during fundraisers). Affluence is no immunity from the trials and tragedies of life: the girl whose parents are in the thick of an ugly divorce, the senior who becomes pregnant, the student with a drug problem, the 14-year-old who just lost her mom to cancer.
In many cases, Sr. Pat is powerless to alter outcomes. But she can love. And love is as much a part of the Villa formula as the high bar it sets for academic excellence. The sisters can’t guarantee their young charges a life free from hurt and unfairness. But they promise them this: No Villa girl will ever hurt alone.
In the popular culture, nuns are synonymous with discipline. There’s something to that, though it’s worth remembering the Latin root for “to discipline” is not “to punish” but “to teach.” As part of preparing their girls for the world, the Filippini sisters endeavor to show them, by example, that when St. Paul wrote that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, it was more than pretty words.
Sometimes love means being the one to deliver bad news; sometimes it’s telling a student to knock off the nonsense and start living up to her God-given potential; sometimes it’s just offering a shoulder to cry on for a girl feeling terribly lost and abandoned. Across our world there are thousands of women who, just like Sr. Pat, bring this love to bear daily in ministries from health care and education to helping victims of sexual trafficking. They are living out their promise to God to put the needs of others before their own.
Like many moms and dads, my wife and I have our anxious moments when we contemplate the future our daughters will inherit. Again like others, we pray for guidance. Then we send our daughters to Sr. Pat. They arrive as unsure and unformed girls—but leave as capable, confident and well-educated women.
And her thanks? To be used as a punchline on late-night TV.
Sr. Pat is not the type to give something like this a second thought. She also knows enough to know Mr. Kimmel intended no malice. Still, she deserves better.
A pity Mr. Kimmel and his audience will settle for a cheap laugh line like “Sr. Mary Frances O’Brien.” Because if they could bring themselves to look just beyond the caricatures to the real-life Sr. Pats and the institutions they run, they would be astonished by the strength, selflessness and accomplishment they would find.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.